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Friday, April 03, 2009


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Interesting topic. You say: "Lust, however, is morally objectionable."

You note explicitly that you have not proved this, wonder whether it can be proved, and if so what are the premises of such a proof. I wonder too. Moreover, I wonder whence the intuition that lust is *inherently* morally objectionable. I say 'inherently' so as to distinguish it from cases where lust is accompanied by other traits the combination of which leads to morally objectionable behavior. For instance, if the exercise of lust is accompanied by disregard to the welfare of others, then its manifestation is liable to be harmful and, hence, morally objectionable. However, such cases do not show that lust is morally objectionable: only that exercising it in conjunction with other morally objectionable traits is morally objectionable.

I myself do not have the intuition that lust is inherently morally objectionable because of the sexual nature of its object. Let us ask: Can one have a disposition to lust, exercise it as frequently and in ways we all agree that the disposition or habit is present, but do so in a responsible manner without harming others? Or are we to say that the element of vice in lust is precisely the fact that the subject is incapable of controlling the desire; that its exercise cannot be monitored in a manner so as to prevent deliberate harm to others. If so, then the morally objectionable element in lust is not its sexual object, but rather the fact that it is not possible for the subject to exercise control over the desire: it is the compulsive element that is morally objectionable and not the sexual nature of its object.



A good comment, as usual. (Why is it that only you and a couple of others know how to write good comments?)

I agree with your second paragraph.

As for your third paragraph, you will have noted that I am not using 'lust' to refer to desire for sexual pleasure. There is nothing morally objectionable about the desire as such. I am using 'lust' to refer to a vice. Now if I am using 'lust' to refer to a vice, then it follows analytically that lust is morally objectionable.

What you are asking is this question: Why should the pursuit of sexual pleasure for its own sake, whether 'onanistically' or with consenting adult others, be regarded as morally objectionable in even one instance? Or perhaps: Why should the pursuit of sexual pleasure ever be considered inordinate where 'inordinate' is taken to have a normative sense?

Let me know if those are your questions.

Thank you so much for the stimulating post, Bill. My palms are sweaty as I try to type this.

There are a few clinical facts worth noting, whether or not we decide to be swayed by them.

Someone prone or disposed to lustful thoughts need not, and in fact often does not, act out these fantasies. A new and highly profitable industry in the US is treating “sexual addictions”. (I’m sure there is Betty Ford Center for Sexual Addictions near your home now or coming soon. Call for details if you need help.) What I happen to know is that many of the people seeking help with their obsessive/excessive sexual thoughts are not acting out at all, even in normal activity. They are strongly inhibited from any sexual activity, and this is fueling their lustful thinking even as they struggle to repress it. The point is that lustful thinking often does not break out into lecherous conduct. Many people break down rather than break out. The man at home with his lustful thoughts and happily disposed to engage in the excessive and inappropriate sexual conduct he envisions is a lecher. True lechers, as you can imagine, seldom show up at the Betty Ford Centers (unless ordered there by a judge).

Our lecher is Aristotle’s akolastic man. Akolasia is the vice of character Aristotle has the most to say about. The akolastic is a man who has knowingly and deliberately chosen to build a character focused on wanton sexual indulgence and other debaucheries. A example that comes to mind is the Honorable Marquis de Sade, at least he portrays himself in his fine writings. That fellow is a paradigm of the vice of akolasia for Aristotle. (No surprise that Aristole thinks that vice is incurable.)

The further point is that Aristotle draws a sharp distinction between akolastic vice and a weakness of the will in sexual or other matter. The man “swept away” by desires he will regret is akratic, not vicious. He does not choose and want to be bad, he is just too weak to be good. There is hope, Aristotle believes, that the akratic man will learn to control his desires (enkrateia), and eventually maybe even become virtuous.

We have to decide, then, whether we are going to use vice (kakia) as Aristotle does, or in a looser or broader sense that could encompass akratic weakness. Vice for Aristotle is a kind of incurable (and self-inflicted) disease which destroys the moral faculties. I don’t think we can argue that a suspectibilty to lustful thinking is an Aristotelian kakia. Only if someone embraces these thoughts and makes a habit of translating them into vile conduct do we fall into akolastic vice.

A somewhat weaker sense of vice sees vice as any well-established character trait that seriously harms the individual and also causes harm to other people subject to his “vicious” conduct. Lechery is certainly a vice in this sense, but is lustful thinking? That needs to be considered.

I understand that we can, if we want, define lust in such a way that it is meant to follow that lust is vice, but perhaps we want to reflect a little more on what we will count as vice. Both lust and vice want defining.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Matthew 5.27–28

Bill, is there a discrepancy between Ad.5 and the last sentence in Ad. 2? Aristotle would see a problem with a man who had lustful desires and yet resisted them through continence. If a man who has lustful desires is not lustful in the strict sense of having his lustful desires habitually satisfied, then we must still say that he is in possession of some sort of undesirable quality. He certainly is not perfect. If we do not say that he is lustful we must say something else about him.

Edward and Phil,

There is something wrong with what I say above, and I think you are both getting at it, though in different ways. I want to use 'lust' to refer to a vice and thus to a habit when it might be better to use 'lechery' for that purpose. I concede to Edward that a man whose desire for sexual pleasure is inordinate is lustful, and that this is a moral defect, even if he combats it and doesn't fall into lechery.

With respect to MT 5.27-28, a married man who has a sexual outlet, but who yet entertains (with hospitality) the thought of having sex with another woman is lustful in a morally objectionable way even though he does not act on his desire and is no lecher.

A simple quwestion, is it the case that a man who has inordinate sexual desire is lustful? I say no for the simple reason that we do ot control the degree of our sexual desire anymore than we control our desire for food. What we do have control over is WHAT we desire. That is, we have control over whether or not we desire the opposite sex, age appropriate partners, childer, animals, orwhatever else have you. In My view, lust has not to do with the level of desire, but with the legitimacy of the subject (people are not objects) of that desire.
The existence of a general desire for sex with a woman is not wrong, however, the existence of a desire to have sex with my neighbours wife is wrong. So I think that lust has much to do with whether or not one has a legitimate subject of his sexual desire.

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